Even after 15 years of living in France we are still learning things and being surprised by French culture.
In the UK being invited to come for ‘a light lunch’ might mean a ham salad, or soup followed by cheese and biscuits. Jamie Oliver suggests crab cakes or potato rostis. The fail-safe option would be pizza whether the location is Italy, France or the British Isles. My mother used to take the ‘Woman’s Realm’ weekly magazine in which were short stories of the ‘Romantic fiction’ genre. She noted that when an impromptu romantic meal was called for, a fresh herb omelette was often rustled up by the handsome hero.
Twice in the recent past we have been invited for a ‘light lunch’ by friends. Arriving around midday, we have been greeted with an apéritif of either champagne or a gin and tonic. On the coffee table would be a selection of bowls containing nibbles such as dried fruits and nuts, crisps, toasts with smoked salmon on a bed of cream cheese – things that can be eaten as finger food. Sliced pizza may also be served as it is considered as an apéritif and not as a main course.
We learnt this when invited to participate in ‘bring a contribution’ type meals. Our home-made pizza disappeared from the buffet where we had placed it and reappeared in pieces to be passed around as an appetiser. If your offering happens to be ‘gluten free’ and was what you had planned to eat, this presents a problem!
A pleasant time of conversation and friendly exchange ensues while seated in an informal manner. The next step is to be invited to the dining table already set with cutlery, glasses for water, napkins and wine glasses and possibly a simple vase of flowers.
The next courses could start with an entrée, avocado and parma ham, some prawns and salad in a Marie Rose dressing, a pâté or an egg dish. Do not serve anything to do with cheese as that is catered for later! Bread will be offered but never with butter. The bread has an unexpected use as a way of cleaning your plate of any sauces -because the plate will not be removed but will be also used for the main course!
Fish, casseroles, sliced ham, almost anything could be served as the ‘plat principal’ but don’t expect any vegetables except the ubiquitous green beans – les haricots verts. Starches -‘féculants’ such as potatoes, rice or pasta usually accompany meat. A student who stayed with us asked if our ‘light lunch’ of mixed salads could include some ‘féculants’ otherwise she would feel light-headed in the afternoon!
So far we have had apéritifs, un entrée, le plat principal but we have not finished! Next comes the salad either separately from or with the cheese plus more bread. Several cheeses are usually offered a blue veined one, a hard cheese, a goat’s cheese and a camembert. Be careful not to cut across the pointy end of a wedge of cheese as this is considered the best part. Try to leave the cheese in the same basic shape as when it arrived.
We are nearly at the end of our light lunch! Desert! Perhaps a Crème brûlée, mousse au chocolat, crème caramel or a simple yogurt.
The students who stayed with us were adamant that they would not drink a coffee with us at 11am. French people drink coffee with their breakfast and after their lunch.
That was how our ‘light lunches’ ended and we were even treated to After Eight Mints!